The education crisis is about planning, and priorities

Naturally, there is no magic solution to such problems; what is needed is long-term strategy, including measures to attract more teachers to the profession through better wages and conditions

Even at the best of times, the start of a new scholastic year always comes with its own challenges and ‘headaches’ – for the schools; for the parents; for the unions; indeed, for anyone even remotely involved: not least, the ministries and departments concerned with the smooth running of our education system.

To be fair, 2021 is hardly the first year when such ‘headaches’ have spilt out into public complaints and/or protests – as was the case last Monday, when the Malta Union of Teachers issued a withering statement, accusing the government of being ‘unprepared’ for this year’s re-opening of schools.

It is, however, a deeply significant year: not just for the education sector, but for the country as a whole. This is the first time our schools have re-opened after the recent relaxation of all the Covid-19 protocols and safety measures; as such, it also represents – even on a symbolical level – a ‘return to normality’, after almost two years of anxiety and uncertainty (much of which, it must be said, especially affected school-age children)..

One has to, of course, acknowledge that 2021 was also a very difficult year: the education sector in particular has had to address a number of challenges due to the Covid pandemic; and that this required a massive effort which was – with the exception of certain ‘hiccoughs’ - largely successful.

Nonetheless, it is deeply worrying that MUT President Marco Bonnici would complain about the “messy”, “unprecedented” deployment of teachers on the eve of the school year; and that, despite claims by the ministry that it was prepared for today’s reality, this proved not to be the case at all.

It appears from the MUT’s statement that government had appointed around 150 peripatetic teachers, as a last-minute ‘panic’ measure to combat a severe shortage in (mostly) the primary sector.  

According to Bonnici: “they called up teachers on Saturday morning and asked them to get ready to teach a class on Monday. These are educators who work with students who struggle with things like hearing impairments and dyslexia, whose presence is vital to the learning experience of these children. They are essential, but in a state of panic the ministry removed them from their positions in order to fill in vacancies…”

On her part, Education Minister Justyne Caruana has contested some of the figures supplied by the MUT: arguing that a total of 109 additional classes were needed due to the Covid-19 protocols, whilst another 22 were needed due to the increase in registrations. This led to a situation where 81 peripatetic teachers were called to teach a primary class instead of a peripatetic subject. 

Nonetheless, she did not – indeed, could not – deny the extent of the teacher shortage itself; nor why the ‘plan’ – supposedly agreed between government and union – was never forthcoming, when it was needed.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the situation in schools, however, is that parents, students and educators alike were faced with problem only on the eve of the re-opening itself. And this can only be interpreted as a sign of chronic lack of planning; for it is evident that assigning PE teachers to teach entire primary classes - just a couple of days before the start of the scholastic year - is both a chaotic, and an insensitive way of solving problems. 

Naturally, there is no magic solution to such problems; what is needed is long-term strategy, including measures to attract more teachers to the profession through better wages and conditions. 

But such an approach will only yield results in the long term.  In the short term, government has to resort to temporary fixes and measures. Even here, however, one expects that the problems are discussed with stakeholders some time before schools are opened (and not literally the day before).

Moreover, the writing has been on the wall for some time. Former Education Commissioner Charles Caruana Carabez had started an investigation into teacher shortages way back in 2019, when he warned : “I don’t want to be dramatic or cause alarm but we face a crisis if we do not act. That is why I want to understand better what the situation is in order to proceed with recommendations and comments.” 

He also said that he believed the issue stemmed from poor conditions for teachers including low pay: “A teacher’s work is not only about the teaching load one has. A teacher does more. Sometimes, to prepare a lesson, you have to spend weeks on it, but then you have a student asking a question and you change everything and they learn more. I don’t like people measuring the immeasurable”.

To be fair, in the next years the scholastic system was overwhelmed by the pandemic which further compounded the problem; and the impact on government revenue has clearly prevented any imminent reform of teachers’ working conditions across the board.

But in a country where the government is so quick to splash 20 million euros on a race track in Hal Far – whilst ignoring teachers’ demands for a pay-rise indefinitely – clearly, we need to get our priorities right.